On a freezing November night, with a brass band playing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen on the streets outside, Richmond Old Town Hall played host to horrible crimes, delicious mince pies and a surprise ghost. Part of the Richmond Literary Festival, Murder, Mystery and Mayhem featured neo-Victorian novelists Essie Fox, Lynn Shepherd and D.E Meredith (provider of the mince pies) discussing the grim and grisly aspects of the period of history they’ve chosen to write about. Since I’m currently querying agents with my own Victorian thriller and I loved Meredith’s debut novel Devoured, I braved the elements and went south of the river to hear them talk last week.
It’s the second time that Fox, Shepherd and Meredith have taken their three-woman show on the road, and they’d clearly hit their stride. They each come to neo-Victoriana with different slants – Shepherd, whose books play with characters from Austen and Dickens and whose third novel about the Shelleys is out in early 2013, is the most obviously intertwined with the fiction of the period. Fox, who fell in love with the Victorians through gaslit costume drama on rainy Sunday afternoons, is mired in Grand Guignol and sensation fiction, and former environmental activist Meredith fell in love with the scientific writing of Alfred Russell Wallace, and admits that when it comes to historical accuracy “with the language I’m a little bit flexible. With the science, I’m not.”
One of the great appeals of the Victorian period, as Shepherd pointed out, is that it is a transitional moment in history. Photography, the birth of forensic science, psychiatry – elements of our own society are present here in their earliest forms. In my own research, I’m constantly surprised at how much was discovered and invented over such a short space of time. Surgery went from butchery to…well, anaesthetised butchery, telegrams allowed long-distance communication that must have seemed as fast to them as texting does to us, and the police force was still in its relative infancy when fingerprinting was brought in. Behind that age of science and invention, of course, was one of moral hypocrasy that went hand-in-hand with dire poverty. Although the social conservatism of the day tried to mould women as tightly as their corsets, the seeds of the modern feminist movement were starting to take root – and who doesn;t love a little idealogical conflict in their fiction?
Most writers of historical fiction I know scrupulously avoid reading novels set in the period in which they’re writing. Whilst this makes sense, it’s completely impractical for me – partly because I write a column on historical fiction, and partly because neo-Victoriana makes up a pretty sizeable chunk of my reading matter at any given time, and I’m not abandoning one of my chief pleasures in life for the nebulous chance of publication. Plus, I find it a useful shortcut to immersing myself in the period – if it’s good, then I’m already in the Victorian headspace, and if it’s bad then I scoff, tell myself I can do better, and sit down to write. Luckily, these authors fall into the first camp – and I’m glad I allow myself to indulge, or I’d have missed some of the most enjoyable books of the year.
I also had the pleasure of meeting Fern Riddell of Vice and Virtue (and now the Literary Women Twitter account). Finding someone else who gets as excited about mentions of the Contagious Diseases Act as she does about Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books, Tom Hiddleston and Javier Bardem was like Thelma meeting Louise but with more discussions of syphilis, and I’ve decided that we’re going to be friends for life.
Oh, and as for the ghost – halfway through the talk came an eerie tapping on the wooden panelling behind the writers, and a disembodied voice begging, in true Catherine Earnshaw style, to be let in. After a moment of audience and speakers collectively wetting themselves in fear, the ghost added uncertainly “Is this not the front door, then?” Never have two late-comers been greeted with more relieved hysteria.